Edgar Degas (19 July 1834 – 27 September 1917)
was a French artist famous for his paintings, sculptures, prints, and
drawings. He is especially identified with the subject of dance; more than
half of his works depict dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of
Impressionism, although he rejected the term, preferring to be called a
realist. He was a superb draftsman, and particularly masterly in depicting
movement, as can be seen in his renditions of dancers, racecourse subjects and
female nudes. His portraits are notable for their psychological complexity and
for their portrayal of human isolation.
At the beginning of his career, he wanted to be a history painter, a calling for
which he was well prepared by his rigorous academic training and close study of
classic art. In his early thirties, he changed course, and by bringing the
traditional methods of a history painter to bear on contemporary subject matter, he
became a classical painter of modern life.
Degas is often identified as an Impressionist, an understandable but
insufficient description. Impressionism originated in the 1860s and 1870s and grew,
in part, from the realism of such painters as Courbet and Corot. The Impressionists
painted the realities of the world around them using bright, "dazzling" colors,
concentrating primarily on the effects of light, and hoping to infuse their scenes
with immediacy. They wanted to express what they saw in that exact moment.
Technically, Degas differs from the Impressionists in that he "never adopted the
Impressionist color fleck", and he continually belittled their practice of painting
en plein air. "He was often as anti-impressionist as the critics who reviewed the
shows", according to art historian Carol Armstrong; as Degas himself explained, "no
art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and
of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know
nothing." Nonetheless, he is described more accurately as an Impressionist than as
a member of any other movement. His scenes of Parisian life, his off-center
compositions, his experiments with color and form, and his friendship with several
key Impressionist artists—most notably Mary Cassatt and Édouard Manet—all relate
him intimately to the Impressionist movement.
Degas's style reflects his deep respect for the old masters (he was an
enthusiastic copyist well into middle age) and his great admiration for Jean
Auguste Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix. He was also a collector of Japanese
prints, whose compositional principles influenced his work, as did the vigorous
realism of popular illustrators such as Daumier and Gavarni. Although famous for
horses and dancers, Degas began with conventional historical paintings such as The
Daughter of Jephthah (c.1859–61) and The Young Spartans (c.1860–62), in which his
gradual progress toward a less idealized treatment of the figure is already
apparent. During his early career, Degas also painted portraits of individuals and
groups; an example of the latter is The Bellelli Family (c.1858–67), a brilliantly
composed and psychologically poignant portrayal of his aunt, her husband, and their
children. In this painting, as in The Young Spartans and many later works, Degas
was drawn to the tensions present between men and women. In his early paintings,
Degas already evidenced the mature style that he would later develop more fully by
cropping subjects awkwardly and by choosing unusual viewpoints.
By the late 1860s, Degas had shifted from his initial forays into history
painting to an original observation of contemporary life. Racecourse scenes
provided an opportunity to depict horses and their riders in a modern context. He
began to paint women at work, milliners and laundresses. Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet
La Source, exhibited in the Salon of 1868, was his first major work to introduce a
subject with which he would become especially identified, dancers.
In many subsequent paintings dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal,
emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. From 1870 Degas increasingly
painted ballet subjects, partly because they sold well and provided him with needed
income after his brother's debts had left the family bankrupt. Degas began to paint
café life as well, in works such as L’Absinthe and Singer with a Glove. His
paintings often hinted at narrative content in a way that was highly ambiguous; for
example, Interior (which has also been called The Rape) has presented a conundrum
to art historians in search of a literary source—Thérèse Raquin has been
suggested-but it may be a depiction of prostitution.
As his subject matter changed, so, too, did Degas's technique. The dark palette
that bore the influence of Dutch painting gave way to the use of vivid colors and
bold brushstrokes. Paintings such as Place de la Concorde read as "snapshots,"
freezing moments of time to portray them accurately, imparting a sense of movement.
The lack of color in the 1874 Ballet Rehearsal on Stage and the 1876 The Ballet
Instructor can be said to link with his interest in the new technique of
photography. The changes to his palette, brushwork, and sense of composition all
evidence the influence that both the Impressionist movement and modern photography,
with its spontaneous images and off-kilter angles, had on his work.
Blurring the distinction between portraiture and genre pieces, he painted his
bassoonist friend, Désiré Dihau, in The Orchestra of the Opera (1868–69) as one of
fourteen musicians in an orchestra pit, viewed as though by a member of the
audience. Above the musicians can be seen only the legs and tutus of the dancers
onstage, their figures cropped by the edge of the painting. Art historian Charles
Stuckey has compared the viewpoint to that of a distracted spectator at a ballet,
and says that "it is Degas' fascination with the depiction of movement, including
the movement of a spectator's eyes as during a random glance, that is properly
Degas's mature style is distinguished by conspicuously unfinished passages, even
in otherwise tightly rendered paintings. He frequently blamed his eye troubles for
his inability to finish, an explanation that met with some skepticism from
colleagues and collectors who reasoned, as Stuckey explains, that "his pictures
could hardly have been executed by anyone with inadequate vision". The artist
provided another clue when he described his predilection "to begin a hundred things
and not finish one of them", and was in any case notoriously reluctant to consider
a painting complete.
His interest in portraiture led Degas to study carefully the ways in which a
person's social stature or form of employment may be revealed by their physiognomy,
posture, dress, and other attributes. In his 1879 Portraits, At the Stock Exchange,
he portrayed a group of Jewish businessmen with a hint of anti-Semitism. In 1881 he
exhibited two pastels, Criminal Physiognomies, that depicted juvenile gang members
recently convicted of murder in the "Abadie Affair". Degas had attended their trial
with sketchbook in hand, and his numerous drawings of the defendants reveal his
interest in the atavistic features thought by some 19th-century scientists to be
evidence of innate criminality. In his paintings of dancers and laundresses, he
reveals their occupations not only by their dress and activities but also by their
body type: his ballerinas exhibit an athletic physicality, while his laundresses
are heavy and solid.
By the later 1870s Degas had mastered not only the traditional medium of oil on
canvas, but pastel as well. The dry medium, which he applied in complex layers and
textures, enabled him more easily to reconcile his facility for line with a growing
interest in expressive color.
During his life, public reception of Degas's work ranged from admiration to
contempt. As a promising artist in the conventional mode, Degas had a number of
paintings accepted in the Salon between 1865 and 1870. These works received praise
from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary. He soon
joined forces with the Impressionists, however, and rejected the rigid rules,
judgements, and elitism of the Salon - just as the Salon and general public
initially rejected the experimentalism of the Impressionists.
Degas's paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculptures are on prominent display in
many museums, and have been the subject of many museum exhibitions and
retrospectives. Recent exhibitions include Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks (The
Morgan Library, 2010); Picasso Looks at Degas (Museu Picasso de Barcelona, 2010);
Degas and the Nude (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2011); Degas' Method (Ny Carlsberg
Glyptotek, 2013); and Degas's Little Dancer (National Gallery of Art, Washington